Will we need fewer buildings in the future?

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The way we shop and work is changing. Find out how we must adapt buildings to utilise this change.


Will we need fewer buildings in the future?
Humans got by for most of their history without offices. The purpose-built block is a recent development: the first built around 1840. The same goes for the High Street – a 19th century invention. And the shopping centre is an even more recent arrival, appearing after the Second World War. Before, coffee shops were the usual place for office work, and markets were where things were bought and sold. So what about the future for these buildings?

Both these property types are now under siege. This is most obvious in the case of retail where the rise of internet shopping is challenging the role of physical space. With a growing number of sales now taking place online, retailers are concentrating on ‘destination’ locations, which can offer a mix of attractions, restaurants and leisure as well as shopping – places that can offer something that the internet does not.

Changing role of shops
At the same time, they are rethinking the stores themselves, offering new ways to sample and experience goods, and using mobile technology to entice and incentivise shoppers. This all recognises that the role of the store is changing – it may not be where products are bought in the future, but it may always be a place where shoppers sample products and get advice. Even previously online-only retailers are getting in on this act, with Amazon, Bonobos and Warmby Parker, among others, opening physical stores. But this doesn’t change the fundamental points: there may well be less retail space overall, concentrated in the most popular destinations; companies will invest more heavily in fit-out and customer experience; and many other locations may be redundant.

Working smart
Offices are not, yet, seeing as significant a change. But the signs are there. Already, employee densities have gone up as building managers have realised that hotdesking can allow them to occupy less space. At the same time, more people are choosing to work flexibly from home, offices and third spaces such as cafes or co-working spaces. This also means that offices can incorporate more breakout, games, meeting or event space.

Smart buildings which can monitor usage and in different zones, and the growth of the ‘gig economy’ will further accelerate this shift. Once again, it suggests that there may be fewer office buildings in the future, concentrated in gateway cities and hubs with superb public transport and outstanding broadband, as well as cutting-edge amenities and anchor institutions such as universities. This implies a lower amount of gross office space and greater competition for more value-intensive space in the right locations.

Rise of automation
At the same time, automation is likely to start to reorganise the labour force itself, removing the need for many white-collar jobs. The 21st century could see the reversal of the huge increase in office employment seen since the 1950’s. But technological change has always created new jobs as well as destroying them and whatever the outcome, these changes will have huge social consequences and raise questions around wealth and profit distribution.

The future of buildings
So, will we need fewer buildings in the future? Less maybe more when it comes to offices and retail, but on the other hand, housing shortages and an ageing population are not going away. So while there will probably be fewer offices and shops in 2050, there will, hopefully, be more homes alongside specialist housing for the vastly increased numbers of very old people, with all the employment needs that suggests. And, of course, there will also be more warehousing space for a generation of shoppers who have grown up with the internet.

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